… and, that’s a wrap!

?a dark or sweet yeaR by 27147
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It’s not in my normal way of doing things, to review the year and sum up all I’ve done professionally, in a public manner. Nor do I usually follow The Rules of blogging and prepare a standard “looking back” post at the end of the calendar year. I’ve never done it before and really was not going to do it this time.




2009 was not an easy year for me — one of the most difficult on record, actually — and sometimes it is the pain that helps you realize just where you are and where you might be going. Pain can be a powerful motivator.
Not that I am really motivated by pain to write this — it’s more accurate to say that the pain has allowed me to see more clearly. And so I felt it appropriate to do some public reflection, as a way of documenting this small but significant moment of clarity. We’ll see how it goes…

I began 2009 hoping for a fresh start from a tumultuous end to 2008. While 2008 was not a terrible year, it ended with much uncertainty and emotion — I had resigned my position at UNIS, but not yet submitted applications to grad schools, and had no idea if I would get in. I knew big changes were ahead, and was scared to death about what they would be. On this blog, that fresh start to 2009 meant a post about my visit to Green School in Bali, Indonesia. That post came about as I finished up my time in Ubud at an incredible yoga and meditation retreat with two of my favorite teachers (read more about Twee and Rebecca if you are interested). It was a magical time, refreshing, energetic, full of learning and personal awakenings. And my visit to Green School woke me up also to some of the realities of the dream of providing an ideal school. I only wish I could return to Green School in January 2010 to see how far it’s come since my last visit. Alas, that will have to wait.

The early part of 2009 was full of more reflection for me on some areas vital in being a good teacher: assessment, understanding arguments, and the importance of communication. In my case, the latter was focused somewhat on communication via Twitter, the main point of access into my PLN for me. I participated in the Great Tweets challenge and found myself opening up to new conversations with new people about issues I really cared about.

During the next few months, many changes occurred: I was accepted into NYU and began planning for a massive move from Hanoi to New York; I attended EARCOS Teachers’ Conference in Borneo and began implementing some professional development changes at the school I was leaving; Jeff over at U Tech Tips graciously invited me to join the blogging team there.

I began thinking quite carefully about changes still to happen in education — the kinds of changes that I believe are long overdue. I was becoming a bit soured in this education game, most likely because I was looking ahead, knowing that I was leaving the teaching side of it for a while. For several months, I felt discouraged and wondered if I should just leave the teaching profession altogether, because dammit — this revolution was taking way too long.

I took a rather long hiatus over the summer — from June to September, in fact. I took one last big trip around Asia — a very memorable one. I visited Hoi An, Bali, and Thailand on my own, visiting friends along the way but spending a lot of time alone. I was fearful of the changes ahead of me, as I tried not to allow that fear to overcome me. I distinctly remember a conversation with Gaby in Bali about The Next Chapter. I listened intently as Gaby coached me over coffee about the importance of writing the words on the blank pages ahead. I knew she was right, but knowing it and being ready for it are two different things.  The summer was difficult.  Leaving Hanoi was painful. Being in “no man’s land” without a home for 2 months was also difficult.  I was in transition, waiting for visa papers, one of my cats died, and I was in the process of moving my 3 bedroom house into a 250 sq foot apartment in Lower Manhattan.

i sprung forward way too fast by squacco
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Once in NYC, I also was struggling with the changes that come with going from having had a rather decent salary for the past 11 years, to now having no income and watching my bank account dwindle. That, ladies and gentleman, was one of the most difficult challenges for me in 2009. Not to mention the complete lifestyle change that accompanies it — and being a student again, to boot. Suddenly I had all this time on my hands, most of it unstructured, and had to read, annotate, highlight, submit, write, align, research, diagram, create, and present things I had never done before. This semester kicked my butt a little bit — and perhaps it needed some kicking. I can say now, though, that I’m quite proud of the progress I’ve made in my first semester as an M.A. student, and I am eagerly awaiting the next semester’s challenges. In the past 4 months I have learned an incredible amount about designing for education, using technology. In fact, I will write a separate post about my learning in that domain because there is so much for me to process and debrief on before the next semester begins that I think it warrants something distinct, and should not simply be lumped in with everything else in this post.

But while we’re on the topic of learning, here are the top 10 things I learned in 2009, in no particular order. Note that I am keeping this on a professional / academic level; my personal lessons will appear elsewhere, likely on my Posterous blog.

  1. Keynote is one damn fine piece of presentation and creation software.
  2. It is possible to teach yourself an application in a short period of time, and be functional with it, if you are a quick and dedicated self-learner.
  3. Change within educational organizations is slow, and my experience has taught me that this is because admin, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders are often skeptical, sometimes uncomfortable, and occasionally lazy. Find ways for the skeptics to remain, for the uncomfortable to be comfortable, and for the lazy to leave, and you have a recipe for a potentially innovative environment.
  4. My students have been — and I hope they will continue to be — the best teachers. Ever. They are real, down-to-earth, and much better at communicating than many adults I know.
  5. Assessment and Evaluation at the tertiary level still has a very long way to go to becoming fair, accurate, transparent, and equitable. I realize it does in many secondary and primary educational institutions as well, but I was rather shocked at how archaic it still is at university level, particularly in the Faculty of Education at a prestigious private college!
  6. All the best intentions in the world still do not create the ideal school. So many factors are necessary to good school design. I’ve learned this from observation, experience, and my attempts to Be The Change. I’ve not completely given up — no way — but I do feel now after 11 years in 6 different schools (and having worked with many colleagues from countless other schools) much more confident in my understanding of all the ingredients necessary to Create The Change.
  7. Good design is crucial to any one “thing” ‘s success — from a Starbucks travel mug to a school district, from software to salary structures. Design is a concept I think I previously underestimated. I now feel like it is an important and often overlooked aspect of education at all levels and layers.
  8. Technology can be a catalyst, but not the reason, for change in education. The world is the reason.
  9. Education in the USA is a political monster. In fact, most things in the USA are political monsters, and my still-evolving belief is that politics are a major factor impeding growth in social and humanitarian causes in the USA. This is also something I greatly underestimated before living here — and my parents have lived in the USA for a long time, so I thought I understood the issues. My current point of view is that until Americans are ready to put politics aside, real and genuine progress in the areas of education, health, immigration, and many many other areas will never happen.
  10. One of the best ways a person can learn about him or herself is to travel. Yep, it’s true. I always suspected this, and therefore my lifestyle reflected it, but now, having not traveled so much recently, I can certainly say it’s changed how I learn. Visiting other cultures, learning other languages, dealing with things outside of one’s comfort zone is the best education one can have. I can confidently say that nothing else is so mind-opening. I would like to see K-12 education acknowledge and integrate this philosophy somehow in a widespread manner. Dreaming? Perhaps. Worthwhile? Absolutely.
  11. (OK, so there are more than 10!) I miss teaching. I really, truly miss it. So I guess I won’t be leaving it altogether, because I have really missed those interactions with young people on a daily basis. In many ways, I feel as though teaching is something I am meant to be doing — it almost feels like a calling.

And I think that’s all I need to say for now. Oh — but no. There is one more important thing as I wrap up this post and this year:


My growth has not been in isolation. So many of you in my PLN have contributed to my learning, and I am so lucky to have found you all. For this, I am full of gratitude. My cup runneth over.

Grasping Games

I’ve recently been reading quite a bit about games in education. The ECT program at Steinhardt has an entire course on games, and I have to admit I’m not all that keen on them (simulations are, in my mind, a different but related genre, by the way). It’s not because I don’t think they have value; I absolutely do. And it’s not because I dislike playing them; while I would never colour myself with the Gaming Crayon, I definitely like to play, but rarely for extended periods. After an hour I tend to lose interest, and I’m not sure why. However, I will admit to having spent more than my fair share with the Nintendo Wii (which I specifically did not buy because I knew I would never study), and my all-time game definitely has to be Tetris. I’m also a big fan of the classic ’80s Atari games like E.T., Frogger, and PacMan. I like playing games more with other people than by myself, and I definitely see their social value. Many of the articles I’ve been reading for Frank’s class have lauded educational games because of their problem-solving features, their adept story-telling and story-weaving, their promotion of positive emotions, and many other features that help explain, on a cognitive psychological level, why games help foster learning. And I understand that games can be totally, wildly fun and involving and still teach. I get all of this, and for the most part, I agree with it.

If you had asked me a few weeks ago why I don’t think games will be big in schools, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you why. I simply haven’t been able to articulate the reason why I don’t think they will ever really be incorporated and integrated into schools.

Until now.

I read this article by Constance Steinkuehler at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and Dmitri Williams at the University of Illinois: “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places’.” (BTW, you can see the article with my highlights and annotations via Diigo here, in case you are interested.) The article is about how online games, in a social-networking kind of way, provide “Third Places” for users to hang out, share, explore, and learn. I totally agree with this comparison. The article goes into depths comparing various games and users to the definition of Third Places as defined by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community.

The epiphany happened for me when I read this quote (emphasis mine):

First and foremost, third places are defined as neutral grounds where individuals can enter and leave as they see fit without having to ask permission or receive an invitation (as one might in a private space) and without having to “play host” for anyone else. Compare, for example, weekday attendance at the workplace to happy hour attendance at the neighborhood tavern. The former is a second place, marked by financial obligation and rules that structure who is expected to be where and for how long; the latter is a third place, marked by relative freedom of movement. [. . . ] To oblige any one person to play requires that explicit agreements be entered into by parties (much like making arrangements for a recreational team sport), since the default assumption is that no one person is compelled to participate legally, financially, or otherwise. Unless one transforms the virtual world of the game into a workplace (e.g., by taking on gainful employment as a virtual currency “farmer” for example, Dibbell, 2006; Steinkuehler, 2006a) or enters into such agreement, no one person is obligated to log in.

Do As I Say by Viewmaker
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And then it hit me: I think this is why we will never see games take off in current schools. The game cannot be the Third Place because school is a Second Place. Students are required to be there, required to participate, and marked by rules that structure it.

So, it’s my current belief that until schools are reformed into neutral grounds marked by relative freedom of movement, we’re not likely to see games become something big within them.

Panwapa Wha…?

We’ve been asked to critique the Sesame Workshop’s Panwapa site, a “global awareness curriculum site” for 4- to 7-year-olds, according to Sesame’s press pageScreen shot 2009-10-20 at 1.42.55 PM

When you first arrive on the site, one of the characters instructs you to click the globe to explore, and so I did. This led me to a place where I could create my own Panwapa kid, apparently. I did not know what this meant, but I signed up anyway. I created my own Panwapa kid and my own house, too. Both were pretty-customizable. However, even a 7-year-old would have had difficulty with all the choices, and most certainly would need guidance from an adult while doing this. (It turns out this thought would reappear throughout my short Panwapa experience.) I also was struck with the thought of how many of the customizable items — food, crafts, and clothing, for example — were rather stereotypical. And I further wondered about the value of these stereotypes in an interactive game for pre-schoolers. Do we want all 4-year-olds to think that everyone in Asia eats only rice? Perhaps I’m over-simplifying, but it is worth considering.

After creating my own Panwapa kid, I was shown the map of all other Panwapa kids. I did a bit of exploring, but that got boring really quickly and so I decided to click the “Treasure Hunt” button. This invited me to a game where I had to find other Panwapa kids who liked certain things. There were three rounds:

  1. Find a Panwapa kid who likes traditional American dolls.
  2. Find a Panwapa kid who likes sharks and ice cream.
  3. Find a Panwapa kid who likes sharks, ice cream, and tennis.

For each level, I had to click through many (like, more than 10) kids to see if they were a “match.” I am not sure if there was an easier way to do it, but I did so by clicking on the “Activities” and “food” buttons, and then scrolling through the kids to see what they liked. It took some time, and wasn’t all that engaging, except that I was praised by the character every time I got something correct, which was kinda nice. And at the end of it all, I got a Panwapa card for my collection. It wasn’t clear to me, however, what I could do with that card later.

I also viewed the movie game, as per Frank’s request (clicking on the little bug’s film projector). This was so confusing to me. I did not realize until the end of the film that the goal of the film was to garner appreciation for learning another language, and going to school. I thought, as I was watching, that the film was more about the marginalization of the Maasai people in Tanzania. After all, Moses says, “We are not allowed to speak our language in school” and he talks about how learning this second language was hard, but it got easier. Yet, the little bug character at the end says something to the effect of, “Did you see that? Moses learned another language to teach his community!” as if this is the coolest thing since sliced bread. What I was thinking was that obviously Moses was sent to school as a fortunate one in his village — I doubt all kids in Tanzania are going to school, especially minorities like the Maasai. And he was probably sent because he is a male, and there was probably an expectation for him to teach his community because he is probably one of only a few in the village who get to go to school.

At the end of the film, the “game” begins: watch the film again and whenever you hear Moses speak Swahili, click on the Panwapa button. What??? I gave it a shot. Apparently he does this 4 times, but I only heard / saw 3. And I am an adult who speaks 4 languages! How on earth would a 4-year-old be able to get that? If the goal of this section was to teach appreciation for other languages, I definitely think it could have been done differently.  Further, I wonder if this “appreciation” lesson is age-appropriate for 4- to 7-year-olds.

It was not until after I played these games and clicked around did I find out what Sesame Workshop’s goals were for this site, and I have to say I was really surprised. Apparently Panwapa is meant to :

[help] children gain empathy for others while encouraging a broader international perspective.

You can read more detailed information about Panwapa’s educational framework here [pdf].

Frank asks, “Does it hit the mark?” My answer, as an educator: No.

It does, however, do a few things well. I identified the following problem-solving features in my brief (20 minute) exploration:

  • question posing (these were peppered throughout the treasure hunt)
  • identifying relationships (implicit in the treasure hunt)
  • gathering information (definitely actively used in the treasure hunt)
  • interpreting data (at the end of the film there is a graph provided about where other Panwapa kids go to school)
  • scanning for clues (in the film game)
  • ability to explore (this is huge, especially on the home page — and it should be, as almost all learning for this age group should be exploratory, in my opinion)
  • identification of pattern and sequence (in the film game)
  • choices – multiple answers (in the question at the end of the film game)

Other things it does well: in terms of affordances of the interactive technology — this is quite good. It was almost always clear as to what the interactive features do. E.g. if I click on the globe I will go to a map; if I hover my mouse over a character, he will speak; etc. In this sense, I did not find it difficult to navigate. However, I am not sure I could say the same for a 4- to 7-year old. In particular, I wonder about the home page, as there is so much to look at and click on. I wonder if it is too much for a wee person of that age; it could be overwhelming and end up being disjunct with no lessons learned at all.

I guess I’m not saying that Panwapa is a total failure, but no, it does not hit the mark.

Designer’s Journal: Ruminating on Readings & Project Ideas

If I Had Something to Say by re_birf
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This week we’ve been asked to jot down / sketch / brainstorm some ideas about our final design project. I was pretty stumped for a while, and I’m still not sure I’ve really got any ideas. I have several jotted down in my (paper) notebook and have been letting them “sit” in my mind for the last 4 or 5 days. Generally they all come back to writing and how to make it more of a social, interactive experience. Basically, I am uncomfortable (always have been) with the stereotypical image of “writer in solitude.” While I agree that at times one can write better when sitting alone, I also think good writers can emerge from a supported community. It takes some balance. I’m not really keen on teaching / instructing people how to become better writers in solitude. I’ll leave that for Sark, Natalie Goldberg, and Julia Cameron. I’m much more interested in how to capitalize on the hive mind and create some solid pieces of Writing For The People.

i am by Will Lion
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Robert Scoble tried a variation of this using FriendFeed and Twitter, but I am much more interested in the idea of having some kind of platform that makes this all possible — that your audience can give you feedback as the ideas are being generated, and that parts of the writer’s words can be shared, and critiqued, before the piece is “finished.” Or perhaps the piece is never finished? I’d like there to be some element of audio / video, as well, so that users can comment this way and so that the focus is not entirely text-based. I basically want writing — that is, communicating via text — to not be as laborious and text-heavy as it is now. In order to blog these days, you have to be pretty text literate. And while that is fine for those of us who are verbal and educated, what about twelve-year-olds who have something to put out into the world, who want to refine their writing, but want some help and interaction to make their writing really phenomenal?

Perhaps I’m thinking too grandiose at the moment…

What’s been sticking out to me when reading Saffer, Sharp, Norman, and Adams is how important it is for the affordances of the interface to be almost instinctual, or intuitive. I also am intrigued by the feedback/ feed-forward ideas Saffer discusses in Chapter 7; it is striking to me how few programs / platforms incorporate this. The key, I guess, is to have everything seem simple to the user but in reality the complexity is all hidden from the user. Which has got me thinking — if it is intuitive to me, how will I know it is intuitive to others? Saffer in particular talks about how so many designers design things for other designers, and how this is just not cool. I have to agree. So I am wondering — hoping? optimistically? naively? — that not being a designer myself or having that background will actually be an advantage in this particular project. Or is that what every designer thinks when they first start out… ? 😉 I suppose it comes back to what we’ve been learning in every course so far — a tenet that is fundamental to educators in general — know your user. Do research, talk to them, study them, find out how they will use things, how they think. This reminds me also how intrigued I was about all the user research that went into Quest Atlantis, having read about this for a different course. Knowing your user is key, and I suppose one cannot assume ever that they are just like oneself! 🙂

I have to admit that I’m really also loving the ideas of one of my classmates, Poukhan. Check out her ideas. I am tempted to scrap my interactive writing idea altogether and ask if I can join her!

Dead Giveaway

This week’s Design Journal assignment required us, among other things, to write a 55-word story, in the spirit of  55 Fiction. Frank didn’t say so directly, but I imagine this has something to do with the importance of story-telling in design. And what better way to understand the important elements of a story than to whittle it down to its bare-bones elements. It reminds me a little bit of Angry Alien Productions’ 30-Second Bunnies, in that only the basics remain, and yet the story still functions. Here is my first ever 55-word story.

Dead Giveaway

Dark-Field Lighting 2 by Kyle May
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“Sweetheart,” he gushes.

“Whiskey, darling?”


The waiter pauses.

“Jameson. On rocks, for him.” Sipping wine, she fumbles in her purse.

Pocket vibration. “Sweetheart, I’ve gotta. . . Hello?” He rises. Impatient ice melts into Jameson; she fumbles in her purse.

Only after paramedics remove the motionless body, the waiter remembers crimson nails, fumbling in her purse.

Would you drink from this mug?

Teachers — myself included — are always telling their students that they should connect their learning to themselves, to something the student feels passionate about. We know that this principle is largely based upon constructivist learning theories. It’s no secret that I am generally a constructivist (though I spice things up with aspects from other theories too), so I am taking a constructivist approach to my assignment this week. This week, I’ve been assigned to critique an interface, based on the readings I’ve been doing about design. Frank said we could critique pretty much anything that is an “everyday object” or even wider, to a kiosk or web page. I’m choosing something near and dear to my heart: a coffee travel mug.

If you know me well, you know I have a substantial collection of coffee mugs in my ownership. I don’t collect them for any reason other than because I love to drink coffee, and I love that travel mugs make the drinking of coffee so wonderfully convenient. The mug I’m critiquing today is this one (Fig.1):

Fig. 1

Fig. 1


Fig. 2

Fig. 2

This travel mug is a standard 12oz. (“tall”) sized mug made by Starbucks. It has a rubber bottom approximately two inches wide, and is approximately 8 inches tall. The base of the lid is about 3 inches in diameter, meaning it has a larger lid than base. (See Fig. 2) The mug’s exterior is made of hard, clear plastic, while the lid is made up of rigid burgundy plastic. Inside the lid, there is a rubber ring around the diameter of the lid where it screws onto the main part of the mug. (See Fig. 3) The lid screws on inside of the mug itself. The lid also has a flip-top with a “lip” made of rubber, a different material than the plastic which makes up the rest of the lid. The rubber on the “lip” is meant to completely close the hole in the top of the lid which would normally be used to drink from. In effect, closing the “lip” seals the container, though Starbucks is quick to point out in the material that comes with their products that they do NOT guarantee their mugs to be spill- or leak-proof.


The mapping of this object is fairly obvious in some places, but less explicit in others. For example. It is obvious where one should put his/her mouth — over the hole in the lid. Likewise, it is also obvious that to control the fluid entering / exiting the container, one needs to move the lid. It’s not well mapped as to where one is supposed to hold the mug, so I assume one is meant to hold it however necessary to get the liquid out of the container and into one’s mouth, which I believe would be the goal (well, it is in my case, anyway!). Thus, experimentation is again needed to tilt, hold, grip, and rotate the mug itself. This is not explicitly mapped, though I have a hard time imagining anyone would find difficulty with it, assuming they have some prior experience with a drinking container of some kind. In that sense, it is intuitive, but it is not mapped.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3


If affordance is about giving the user an idea or clue of how to use something, then I will say it is less obvious how to “unlock” the lid when it is snapped shut over the lip. The lip protrudes over the edge of the lid, so it is implied that one has to use his /her fingers to pop it open, but there are no directional instructions (words, symbols).  Also much less obvious is how to open the lid. There are no arrows or other visual indicators to show how or which way to get the lid off of the main mug. It is only by experimentation or trial and error that one learns that it screws off, in the “standard” way (“righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”). Regarding affordance of what to do with the entire object: while it is intuitive as to what to do with this object, I might say that it has affordance in this respect (ie., it looks like something you are supposed to drink out of). However, as I stated earlier, this is not necessarily well-mapped and relies on the user’s previous experience / knowledge. One who did not have any experience with previous travel mugs, for example, might think that the main mug part of the object could be used as a vase, or a pencil holder. Thus, the design of the product itself does not have any affordances made to make it explicitly clear that this object is solely for drinking coffee.

Function and Feedback:

Considering what the product has been designed for, I think it achieves its purpose in a basic but adequate way. It holds coffee. The lid closes and thus it is relatively good at keeping the coffee inside when it is not being consumed. However, the function of stability is not as well accounted-for as it could be. Because the base is approximately 1 inch smaller in diameter than the top, the mug is not especially stable. This means it is easy to knock over, tip, or not set down properly, which could lead to the tragedy of spilled coffee. Even if the mug lip is closed over the lid, some does leak out if the mug is completely turned on its side. This is despite the design including a rubber ring around the lid and the rubber “stopper” in the lip. Additionally, the container is not insulated and so coffee does not stay warm for long. I might also add that the design is not compatible for rugged lifestyles, as when dropped, the item does crack.  (See Fig. 4) This is despite the very firm and heavy plastic used to create the product.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Conclusion: Is this well-designed?

The interface for this mug is fairly well-designed, but it could be better. More specifically, I think this kind of object could be more ergonomically designed to fit neatly in a person’s hand (mapping). Also, I think more affordances could be made in terms of how to unscrew the lid and how to open the lip of the lid. Lastly, I think the design could be improved by widening the bottom of the base. This would prevent more accidents in terms of spillage, which could potentially be dangerous if the liquid inside is very hot.

Last thoughts:

Hmmm, I wonder if hypothetically Starbucks could ever be sued for poor design if the mug tipped over after one had just poured very hot coffee inside and the lip was open because I couldn’t figure out how to close it properly, or the lid not screwed on completely tight?

I’m kidding, of course, but it is food for thought, isn’t it? Is it my fault that the coffee mug is not designed for stability? or that I can’t figure out how to get the lid off?

What implications does design have for things like regular instructional planning and strategies? What about the design of a teacher’s classroom — how the desks are arranged, how the furniture is set up, where the whiteboard or projector screen is? What affordances are you providing for your students? How well-mapped is your project handout?

I have never thought about design in these ways before, but it certainly has got me thinking about larger implications. I’m even now thinking about how I can “re-design” my living space!

Photos are all mine.

My Life in Iconic Images

… or, Representational Autobiconography as assigned by Frank Migliorelli

Creating “my story” was actually not as difficult as I had anticipated. Actually, for me the question was, Which story to tell? I drafted several outlines (0n paper — I always do my pre-writing/pre-project work on paper) and decided that most stories were too difficult to tell using iconic images. I think the reason is because I was thinking in terms of emotion rather than events, and emotions, while easy to convey using imagery such as photographs, are difficult to convey using icon-type images. So, I elected to tell a story with events and places. I even limited the people in my story — again, just too difficult to do simply without showing relationships and emotions.

(Note: thanks to those of you in my Twitter network who provided advice / tips. I hope my reasons above justify my choice of “techniques.” I so appreciate your input and hope you understand why I chose these techniques.)

The images I chose had largely to do with places and what it was I was doing in those places. It was a challenge to use iconic images to

represent places because the risk of using stereotypes was so high. I wonder if others had this problem, or if it is unique to me because of the varied places I have lived. It definitely made me think about how culture and stereotypes influence our visual understanding, and it is a two-way street in this sense. As in, our understanding of other cultures is sometimes derived from the visuals we see. But the visuals we see also create the understanding we come away with. For example, if you see this first image:

… chances are you will assume that the photo is from Vietnam. And you would be correct. Why would you assume this? The conical hats, of course. In many ways, the conical hat represents Vietnam.

But what if you saw the next image?

Would you also think “Vietnam” as soon as you saw it? It is also from Vietnam, yet we don’t usually associate construction and skyscrapers with the stereotypical Vietnam. But those images are just as “normal” as anyone who has lived in an urban centre in Vietnam will tell you!

Choosing images to tell my story was definitely strategic. I wanted to follow the KISS principle — Keep It Simple, Stupid. Less is more and all of that. I originally had ideas about how to communicate to my audience about the type of schools I’ve been teaching in these last 8 years, but quickly realized that too many representational images on one slide was going to be difficult and confusing for the audience to understand.

I think the most complex thought I tried to transmit was the last slide, whereby I was trying to show that studying and learning (albeit with an ironic bent of boredom) will lead to enlightenment. I wanted to actually make it look as though studying + collaborating = enlightenment, but I could not find any simple images to represent collaboration. There were plenty of cheesy simple ones, or complicated artistic ones but none of them complemented the images I had already chosen, which I chose deliberately for their simplicity in composition.

And so, here is My Life in Iconic Images, version 1.0. Please be gentle. 🙂

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Representation and Interaction Design: Initial Thoughts

This post is the first of several as part of a Design Journal for a class I am taking in Representation and Interaction Design (E19.2015) as part of the ECT Program at NYU Steinhardt.

Please note that I include some bibliographic notes only as a courtesy and reference; this is by no means a properly annotated or formatted bibliography, though it is possible it will evolve as such.

Our first week’s readings were:

  • Hall, Stuart. “Representation, Meaning, and Language.” (excerpt)
  • Robert E. Horn. “Information Design: Emergence of a New Profession.” (from Jacobson, R.E. (ed.), Information Design)
  • Plass and Salisbury. “A Living-Systems Design Model for Web-Based Knowledge Management Systems.” (from ETR&D, Volume 50, No. 1, 2002)

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First: Hall’s article. I have read selections from this text previously, though it has been several years. This kind of stuff fascinates me. It is one of the primary reasons I love teaching and learning languages. I love also that it is so abstract and philosophical — about how language and visuals construct meaning, but that it is conceptually created by the system of representation. There is a very strong argument here for teaching visual and spatial literacy skills alongside traditional textual literacy; any teacher who feels reading/writing is more important than other language strands must read Hall. Additionally, this is so crucial to understanding when setting out to design anything for learning purposes: the context of the culture, the meaning, the representation, and the language. They all work together (or against one another, at times). In a multicultural society, this makes design difficult, because meaning can never be fixed. No wonder countries like Finland have the “top-rated” educational systems; they are designing learning materials for a largely homogeneous society.

“Language can never be a wholly private game.”p.25

I LOVE this quote! The essence of language — and of communication — is that we share these representations and codes.

“This means that our private thoughts have to negotiate with all the other meanings for words or images which have been stored in language which our use of the language system will inevitably trigger into action.” p.25

Sit and think about that for a moment. To simply exist in the world, we must “negotiate” an understanding with others via words, images, and representation. That is a heavy-duty task, which we do without thinking on a daily basis.

I wonder how much better communicators we would all be if we were conscious of this challenge in each moment?*

The constructivist view of representation is also the reason, in my opinion, why things like poetry, music, and art are so beautiful — the meaning constructed at the “other” end (ie., the reader/listener/viewers’s end) is so unique. It is also the basis for the Reader Response instructional technique / philosophy in literature instruction — that there is no right answer. And, it links neatly to another reading from this week, from a different course: that of Paulo Freire‘s objection to the “banking” concept of education. Learners are not receptacles to be filled: we want them to make their own meaning.

Horn’s article was also interesting, but mostly because this is an aspect I know little about. Thus, it was a great introduction to Information Design, a relatively new “profession” and niche. I had no idea that the UK was (is?) a leader in terms of resources and development in Information Design, so this was interesting to read about. Again, I found a strong argument for teaching of visual and textual literacy in Horn’s article when he discusses Structured Writing:

“Structured writing . . . is foundational to some areas of information design. It provides a systematic way of analyzing any subject matter to be conveyed in a written document.” p. 23

Thus, the importance of learning how to organize and arrange information: it is a crucial skill in any kind of analysis. The section on p. 24 about iconic signage was also interesting (another argument for visual literacy in schools), particularly the study of international symbols. I especially think this quote is relevant:

“To create a true linguistics of visual language we need new concepts that focus on how words and images work together.” p. 28

But most interesting was the final conclusion, in which Horn basically says that this profession is still evolving. Huh. It is still evolving 10 years after the publication of this article!

The Plass / Salisbury article was the least interesting to me because it was so technical, and in the end I felt like the conclusions were a no-brainer to me, and therefore somewhat of a disappointment. Not that I think their research & development of the living-systems model is not important — it most certainly is. But their conclusion — that a design cycle to create an instructional knowledge management system works best when there is constant evaluation and regulation by participants — is pretty much a given when you come from an educational background like I do. Of course a system of learning works better when the students have a part of it. Of course a system of learning works better when you are constantly asking the question, “How’s it going?” and “What can we do better?” and then actually implementing the suggestions. To me, it is all summed up in the final sentence:

“The living-systems approach we described in this article aims to support the development of environments that not only allow individuals to regulate their learning process, but that indeed grow and change in order to accommodate learners’ needs.” p.54

I recognize that designing and implementing an instructional tool (particularly a web-based one) to do this may not be easy. Heck, judging from the lengthy process that Plass & Salisbury describe (approximately 20 pages), I have to surmise that it is major task. I get that. But in the field of education, the conclusion stated above is really old news and something that educators try to do daily — particularly if they agree in any way with philosophers like Freire.

On a related note, I was quite pleased to notice distinct similarities between the design cycle that Plass / Salisbury come up with:

Living Systems Design Model

… and the MYP design cycle:

MYP Design Cycle

* As I read articles in this course, I am continuing to find many theories and ideas that are philosophical in nature. I am constantly reminded of Buddhist and other philosophical thoughts (for example, Sikhism, and various other yogic philosophies). I often wonder if I should create a separate blog just about those links. It truly is fascinating, especially when you get even further into studies of cognitive behavioural therapy and cognitive sciences in general.

Back in Action

Hello? Anybody home?

First things first — I am still alive and around.

Yes, this blog has been neglected as of recent months. But I have been around on Twitter, Skype, IM, and a few other places. I haven’t disappeared altogether. It’s just that I find it so hard to properly upkeep this blog when life gets insanely, ridiculously busy. I wish I could be the kind of person that hammers out blog posts whenever I have an idea. But I just can’t. Am I a slow-blogger? I’m not sure. I think it’s just that I am constantly in editing / re-writing mode. So, for me to write a quality post usually takes a long time — at least a couple of dedicated hours, and not fragmented hours. I need time all in one space to write.

Secondly — are you still here?

Is anyone still reading? Or have you all stopped checking into the blogosphere and simply are relying on Twitter and Facebook to keep you in the loop? And really — is anyone still reading my blog? I’ll be honest, if I were a reader of connect. create. question. , I’d be wondering what the heck is going on.  So, here is what has been going on since May 15, 2009 (the date of my last post).

The Nut-shell Version

  • The Final Four Weeks: Not only were the final weeks of the school year at UNIS Hanoi busy with exams, assessments, and clean-up like the end of any academic year, but they were particularly emotional for me as I prepared to leave UNIS and Hanoi, my home for the past three years. There is not enough space here for me to adequately describe my feelings about leaving. (I’m terrible at endings.) Let’s just say that it was difficult, scary, and yet exciting on so many levels. I was a bit of a mess for a little while, trying to sort through all the debris, both figurative and literal. Not to mention packing up my house, cats, and international life to return to the very developed world of the USA. I realize I am highly condensing a very intense time and by doing so I am probably not giving it the full respect it deserves, but I am not certain that this blog is the outlet for such things. Thus, I leave it at that for now…
  • Travel: My final hurrahs in Asia included a lovely trip to Hoi An, a true getaway to my favorite island of Bali, and a brief check-in with a dear friend in Bangkok. All were fabulous, memorable, and a perfect send-off.
  • The Death of the iBook: In the middle of a much-needed creative writing session — in fact, in the middle of the 2nd draft of a poem about the lessons of grief, inspired by Sark — my beloved 5-year-old iBook crashed and died, as I sat on the balcony of my bungalow on Nusa Lembongan, sipping a Bintan and gazing at the sunset. I cried.
  • The Return: because my visa documents for study in the USA could not be sent to Vietnam (postal woes), I had to return to Canada for a few weeks. Plus, there’s family and friends of course, whom I wanted to see. I was able to take in the Calgary Folk Festival, a true treat, and mix & mingle with several cool people whom I love dearly. It was good to be home. I spent a week at my grandmother’s house and thoroughly enjoyed picking garden lettuce, playing bocce, and eating my grandmother’s cooking! Deeeee-lightful. Yet, the stress of The Visa Papers lingered… would they arrive in time?
  • The Fall: shortly after my return to Calgary, I received word that one of my cats, Scout, had fallen off the balcony of the 8th-floor apartment where she was being cared for. She did not survive the fall. This heartbreak arrived the same day as I learned that Michael Franti had to cancel his Folk Festival show due to illness, and I got a $95 parking ticket because my ticket was not completely upright on the dashboard. It was a crappy day all around.
  • The Move: within a very short time, It All Happened. The Visa Papers arrived, I booked a flight, and BOOM — I landed in NYC.

And Here We Are

So, I’ve been in NYC for about 3 weeks now. I have a (very small) apartment, and I am a registered full-time graduate student in NYU’s Educational Communication & Technology M.A. program. To say I am experiencing rapid lifestyle changes across the board would still be an understatement. I am adjusting to a major life upheaval. The main challenges for me so far, and in this order, are:

  1. adjusting to being in a very developed consumerist society, after having witnessed abject poverty in far-flung corners of this planet
  2. wrapping my head around being a full-time student, with no $ coming in and lots going out
  3. wrapping my head around being a full-time student in the 21st century, and understanding how to read, take notes, and BE a student in a tertiary program when it has been 11+ years since I’ve had to think about academia. I feel like I am learning a new language and modality, and it’s difficult.
  4. finding my niche in NYC, a huge intimidating city with many micro-communities
  5. managing my time between unpacking boxes and all this school work that is already piling up, while at the same time trying to make new friends (I know very few people here) and take in all that this city has to offer
  6. finding space in my Teeny Tiny Apartment for the whack of stuff I have accumulated over the last 8 years overseas — and that’s after 4 boxes already went in storage in Calgary. I have already called Manhattan Mini Storage for a quote…

The Education: What’s in Store

Classes started last week. So far, so good. (I still have not unpacked all my boxes, nor visited Ikea, but they will have to wait.) I haven’t even bought all my books yet. But my classes seem pretty cool and so do my classmates — a very diverse group of people from a plethora of backgrounds. My courseload this semester:

  • Representation & Interaction Design for Learning
  • Educational Design for Media Environments
  • Cognitive Science and Educational Technology
  • Professional Applications of Educational Media

(You can find descriptions of these courses here.)

So far I am finding my readings to be really heavy on the design aspect, which for me is good. Coming from an educator’s perspective, my understanding of the design process has all been about instructional design and I am quite comfortable with it. However, looking at design from the perspective of media and technology in learning is something new to me, and I daresay it’s one of the main reasons I’m here. 🙂 But more on that later. I will be blogging about my readings for several of these courses, and will save such thoughts for those posts.


Thanks for reading, if you’re still kickin’ around! I can safely say that I will be blogging more often now that school has begun. Several of my professors have requirements for us to journal about what we read and learn (I love that they implement pedagogy like this) and I intend to use this space for some of that.

P.S. I do now have a new MacBook Pro and an iPhone, and quite happy about both!

Image credits:

Is Anybody Home? Free Girl Looking in Window by D Sharon Pruitt under this license

Bathmophobia III by Tarnishedrose under this license

New Paths Ahead

If you’ve been following me on Twitter for any substantial length of time, you’ll know that I’ve been searching for, preparing documents for, and applying to graduate schools for the 2009-10 academic year. Well, after returning from a 4-day field trip in the jungle with 66 sixth-graders, I received this email (abridged) from the program director of NYU Steinhardt’s Educational Communication and Technology program:

Dear Adrienne,
The ECT Faculty Admissions Committee is pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Fall 2009 Master of Arts class in the Program in Educational Communication and Technology. This is our pre-notification to you. You will receive your official acceptance package from the Steinhardt Office of Graduate Admissions within the next week to 10 days.

The ECT faculty hope you continue to view the focus of our program — the design of technology-based learning environments, informed by theory in the learning sciences — an excellent match with your professional interests and goals.

You Can Go Your Own Way by andy in nyc
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I am thrilled! Although my first two schools did not accept me — I was initially very disappointed to receive rejection letters from both Stanford’s LDT program and Harvard’s TIE program — the idea of going to NYU is quite exciting! They have a very cool research area: C.R.E.A.T.E., which stands for Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education. And hey – New York! I have never even visited New York, let alone lived there. Big changes ahead…
And for those who might be going through something similar, I will include here my Statement of Purpose, which I submitted as part of my (very thorough) application to NYU Steinhardt.  But please note: unlike almost everything else on connect. create. question., this work is copyrighted — that is All Rights Reserved.